My father is 94, still physically functional within reason and perfectly astute mentally. On occasion I will share one of the few stories I can coax out of him.
Back in the 30s and 40s, a nickname, once honestly bestowed, was as indelible as the scar left by a branding iron. That was your name now. You may as well have it on your drivers license.
Since my childhood I’ve heard those names in salutations and conversations; Foggy, Chickenwire, Sharky are just a few from the pantheon. But today, we tell the Origin story of Chinky.
We Can Be Heros
Chinky McLain was primary barmen and proprietor of an establishment called The Dome (Be it noted that ‘The Dome’ was not even the real name of the bar, it was an allusion to the peaked Victorian spire of the corner building it occupied and the infamous ‘Teapot Dome’ of equally crooked local politics just a couple hours east).
Chinky, his real first name now lost to the mists of time, was more a contemporary of my grandfather than my father. So with my dad 94 and my grandfather long dead, we can safely place the birth of this oral history somewhere in the vicinity of WWI. Back then the town where it occurred, Scranton, Pennsylvania, hosted more than twice its current population of 77,291. The primary employers were the coal, iron and railroad industries and “foreigners” — so designated by the Irish and German immigrants who themselves were here barely a generation by that time — not an entirely uncommon sight.
One night Chinky, a robust example of physical manhood it should be said, heard a ruckus outside the doors of The Dome. He never stood still for any of his own customers creating a public nuisance in the vicinity so out he went, trusty nightstick in his right hand and his left clinched into a fist the size of an Easter ham. What he found was a group of young ruffs harassing a Chinese man who had been walking down the street, likely to his rented cot near the railroad yards a few blocks down. They pushed, menaced and cursed the man and yes, pulled on that trademark ponytail of yore.
While the offending brutes were not Chinky’s clientele he interceded anyway, followed at a more cowardly distance by a few regulars from the bar. “Leave that man be!” he thundered, approaching the knot of tormentors like an angry train. “What he do to ye?! Feck AFF!” he demanded in his full throated brogue, swinging that club in a fashion so convincing any observers knew he was experienced in such matters.
So off the racist thugs ran. But as they did, like the schoolyard bullies they still were, they taunted (let’s call him Thomas, Thomas McLain) “What, are you a chink like him?” Which, ever more faintly in the distance, became a steady chant of “Chinky chinky Chinaman you’re a chinky chinky Chinaman!”
And that, dear reader, is how a deed becomes a name and how my granddad and, by extension, my dad, hung out with some pretty cool people.
Huzzah, Chinky. Huzzah.